The White House recently issued an executive order that may have significant implications for the future of the meat industry. The long and rather dull title “Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy,” belies the fascinating subject matter, and portends extraordinary biotechnological advances that are on the brink of becoming reality. 

In general, the order details the administration’s policy goal of facilitating a whole-of-government approach to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing towards innovative solutions in, among other things, climate change, food security, agriculture, and supply chain resilience.

Humanity is in the process of developing genetic engineering technologies and techniques that are likely — within the next decade — to fundamentally transform society. We will likely soon be able to program cellular circuitry much in the way we currently do with software, and to also advance production scaling so products can reach markets faster.

To achieve the order’s objectives, the Administration’s objectives include:

• Fostering a biological data ecosystem that advances biotechnology and biomanufacturing innovation, while adhering to principles of security, privacy, and responsible conduct of research.

• Improving and expanding domestic biomanufacturing production capacity and processes, while also increasing piloting and prototyping efforts in biotechnology and biomanufacturing to accelerate the translation of basic research results into practice.

• Boosting sustainable biomass production and create climate-smart incentives for American agricultural producers. 

While the notion of “lab meat” remains distasteful to many that will likely change to the extent such products are able to meet or surpass the benchmarks by which we judge animal derived products, such as safety, taste, texture, nutrition, and cost.   

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that industry is able to develop the means of synthesizing meat products that are, from a consumer standpoint, effectively indistinguishable from animal products, it could be a win for everyone, especially industry.  

Consider as well, for example, the food safety implications. Removing the animal from the equation would remove many of the safety risks. It would, for instance, be much easier to control pathogens. This would, in turn, result in profound cost reductions. With fewer hazards, there would be a concomitant reduction in the need for regulation, insurance, and litigation.  

Additionally, it would likely reduce the costs of transportation. Unquestionably, the volume of synthetic protein a truck could carry would exceed the amount of usable protein a truckload of cattle would contain. 

Likewise, the costs, materials, and space required to produce synthetic protein would likely be far less than those necessary to raise cattle.  

The chief concerns with animal agriculture, legitimate or otherwise, typically fall within the following categories: ecological, environmental, and ethical. To the extent we can produce these products synthetically, those concerns would be either substantially or entirely abated. Here too, it is a good outcome for industry and consumers alike.  

So, again, while still speculative, it is entirely possible that near-term advances in biotechnology will allow for the creation of a cheaper, healthier, safer, more sustainable product that is less intensively regulated, and not subject to the ethical concerns of animal-derived products.